By Joshua Hall
DAEJEON, May 27 (Yonhap) -- For one of South Korea's largest cities known best for its sprawling science town and as a host of top-name corporate research centers, holding sommelier contests was rather odd.
But Daejeon, a major provincial city 164 kilometers south of capital Seoul, has turned to wine as a driver for its tourism business, and hosting the contests is meant to be only the beginning of the campaign.
For Daejeon, three days in early May featured the 7th Korea Best Sommelier Contest and the 2nd Traditional Liquor Sommelier Contest plus wine and food festivals, targeting families looking for entertainment and sightseeing.
Based on ticket sales, 10,000 people attended the events, according to Daejeon City government officials.
Daejeon City is working on a different marketing strategy to promote its wine-based tourism. Rather than publicizing Korean food and liquors overseas, it is inviting wine and food professionals to come over to have a first-hand taste of traditional Korean food and liquor.
"Hosting people in Daejeon is better," said Cheon Byung-ik, an official at the city's tourism department. "Wine is part of food culture. Inviting people to see Korean wine and food next to international wines is a better strategy."
The majority of wine distributors and wine schools in the country are based in Seoul, but Daejeon aims to become the center of the wine business in Korea.
"Daejeon should be the center of wine trade in Korea because of its central location," Cheon said, noting that the city was the first place in Korea to produce wine in 1968.
Daejeon's geographical proximity to Youngdong winery, about a 40-minute drive away, also adds to the city's wine tourism drive. Every October, Youngdong is host to a four-day wine and food festival. The national railway operator, Korail, also operates a wine train tour to the winery from Seoul.
"We have a three-pronged strategy: We are targeting citizens, domestic tourists and international tourists," a Daejeon city government official said.
The Korea Best Sommelier Contest, the most popular of the events, was organized by the Korean International Sommelier Association, which is headed by professor Ko Jae-yoon, assistant dean at the Hotel and Tourism School at Seoul's Kyung Hee University. He has judged the competition since its inception, along with a team of international specialists.
The sommelier contest involves three grueling days of written exams, multiple blind tastings, food pairing, wine list error corrections, decanting and wine services conducted in English.
"Wine and food pairing isn't easy because I work in a bar," said sommelier Kim Ju-wan, who has participated in the competition for the last four years. "It's the hardest part of the competition."
Professor Ko said the biggest challenge for Korean sommeliers is the blind tasting.
"Korean sommeliers don't have enough opportunities to travel and visit wineries overseas," he said, adding that culture and legal restrictions also limit wine knowledge in Korea. "Because of Korean law, sommeliers start drinking wine later than other countries, at age 20, so they have less experience."
In order to raise the level of knowledge among sommeliers, the Korean International Sommeliers Association in conjunction with Daejeon City awarded 20 million won (US$18,600) in prizes to the wine sommelier finalists and 12 million won ($11,100) for the Korean traditional liquor sommelier finalists. Prizes are a mix of cash and fully supported tours of wineries in Europe and sake distilleries in Japan.
The winner of this year's Korean sommelier competition was Lee Yong-mun from Pierre Gagnaire restaurant in Lotte Hotel, Seoul. He said he focused on Korean food pairing and blind tasting for the competition.
Due to the emerging trend of pairing wine with Korean food, Lee expected a question about Korean food and decided to focus on this. He paired zinfandel with a Korean brochette of meat and vegetables because it is "medium bodied and has a little sweetness."
The publicity given to the event, however, fell short of Daejeon's zeal. Interest outside of the Korean wine trade and media was minimal, and the Daejeon convention center, the venue, was notably empty and lacking energy.
"I thought there would be more wine and food today," said Kim Jee-hee, a university student who watched the competition. "But I can buy wine discounted, which is good."
Wine importer Sunny Chang from I&J Wine described the event as generally "slow."
Planning was an issue with organizers having only three months to put together the event. The consensus from wine importers and distributors that attended this year's event was that it was a practice run for next year's much larger and more international events.
In 2012, Daejeon will host the World Association of Chefs Societies' Biannual Congress, the L'Association de la Sommelier Internationale Congress and General Assembly, and the Best Sommelier of Asia/Oceania Contest. The May 1-12 event will draw over 500 wine and food professionals from 45 countries, organizers said.
The Korea International Sommelier Association said it plans to hold the Sommelier Competition in Daejeon for the next five years.
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